Webinar Recap: Strategies for Smarter 1:1 Conversations with WSJ Best Seller Julie Zhuo

Reflektive recently had the pleasure of hosting a webinar with Julie Zhou, VP of Product Design at Facebook and author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller The Making of a Manager, on the topic of 1:1 conversations. During the engaging conversation, Zhou discussed the following:

● How to have smarter 1:1 conversations with direct reports and peers
● How to establish trust among direct reports and team
● Her philosophy on feedback
● What the ideal 1:1 looks like
● Strategies to improve 1:1 formats

The complete webinar is available here. Below is a recap of Zhou’s thoughts.

The Making of a Manager

Like many, Zhou experienced two very different emotions when she first became a manager: elation over her new position and a deep concern, best described as “What am I doing?” After several years in management, she began to blog about the challenges of leadership. She quickly discovered that many of the issues discussed in her blog resonated with her readers, whether she was talking about the perils of imposter syndrome or how best to recruit and retain talent. Her readership now numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

Like many first-time managers, Zhou learned through a process of trial and error. Early in her career, she searched for a resource to guide her through the managerial learning process; while she found a multitude of helpful books for experienced managers, no introductory field guide for the first-time leader existed. The Making of a Manager is the book Zhou wanted at the start of her career: an overview of the basic principles and strategies a new manager needs for success.

Defining a Manager

Before taking a deeper dive into Zhou’s philosophy, we asked her to define a successful manager. Her response was, on the surface, simple: a great manager gets great outcomes from his or her team.

To achieve this goal, a manager needs to understand the team’s objectives, remove obstacles standing between the team and said objectives, and help them attain their goals faster — with higher quality and in a sustainable manner. To do so, the manager must focus on her most important resource: people.

Zhou offers a school’s hierarchy as an analogy. The principal acts as the manager of the school. The school has a clear objective: to prepare children for the future by providing them with the skills and knowledge they’ll need for the next stage in their journey, be it graduating middle school or entering college. The principal’s job is not to teach children directly; his mission is to support teachers by providing them with the right resources, growth opportunities, and assistance.

Trust and Management

Zhou considers trust an essential element in the employee/manager relationship. She notes it’s the people we trust who tend to be the most influential in our lives, and acknowledges how difficult it is to trust someone you don’t believe has your best interests at heart.

In this regard, the manager/employee relationship is no different than any other personal relationship. Managers must win employee trust, especially if headway is to be made in 1:1 meetings. An employee who knows his manager has his best interests at heart is more likely to ask for advice or explore opportunities for growth during meetings. He’ll be willing to tell you when he feels uncomfortable and needs help.

Employees who don’t trust you won’t be willing to express such openness, and growth is only possible when both sides are at ease being vulnerable with each other.


A coach is someone who helps others improve their performance. A coach is an advocate, someone who has your back and wants you to succeed. Zhou considers coaching one of the most important aspects of management.

Given the structure of many organizations, employees often see managers less as coaches and more as judges. After all, your manager holds power over you. She’s the one who determines which projects are a priority, decides who takes the lead on projects, and who gets promoted. She’s even the one who determines whether you have a job, or if you’ll be laid off or terminated.

To placate the “judge,” employees put on their game faces. They hide any signs of vulnerability and avoid asking for help or discussing what troubles them. Doing so robs them of the opportunity to be coached.

Athletes don’t hide their weaknesses from their coaches; a coach needs to understand an athlete’s weaknesses to help him or her improve. It’s the same with employees. Only by understanding your employees’ weaknesses, problems, and aspirations can you help them improve. Again, trust is your main objective. When employees feel safe being vulnerable, they will seek the help you can provide.

1:1 Meetings and Conversations

1:1 meetings offer opportunities to build connections with employees and strengthen trust. Zhou offers several strategies for improving 1:1 meetings, including:

● The meeting should focus on the direct report, not the manager. The direct report should be the one who sets the agenda. Tip: Asking for the agenda a day in advance helps you prepare for the meeting.
● The most productive meetings are often the slightly awkward ones, where you and the other person discuss points that make one or both of you vulnerable and a little uncomfortable.
● Use the meeting to better understand each other.
● Keep status reports separate from 1:1s; use 1:1 meetings to explore topics that can’t be covered in an email, text or hallway encounter.
● Take the time to check in on how the employee is doing. Is the employee stressed or confident? What’s going in the employee’s world outside of work?
● Explore the other person’s career goals and aspirations. What does six months, a year, or three years of satisfying work look like to the employee? (Note: “I’m not sure” is a perfectly acceptable answer).
● Ask the employee how you can help her overcome obstacles and achieve goals.
● Ask for feedback — how are you doing in your role as a manager? Are there ways you can help the employee you haven’t considered?

The goal is for the other person to leave the meeting feeling she’s learned something, been inspired, or otherwise made great use of the meeting time. If all your 1:1 meetings are pleasant but unmemorable, it’s a sign you need to dig deeper. Ideally, meet with your direct reports for at least thirty minutes a week.

Offering Feedback

Zhou recommends keeping at least fifty percent of feedback positive. Not only are you reinforcing the employee’s strengths, but you may also help them identify strengths and talents they hadn’t realized were important and valued. While employees often already know they’re doing well in a particular area, it never hurts to tell them so.

Much of the webinar, naturally enough, focused on relaying tough feedback to other people. First-time managers, in particular, often struggle to deliver critical feedback without damaging the employee/manager relationship.

If you already have a strong relationship with the employee, he or she is unlikely to feel threatened by tough feedback. If, however, you’re still building a foundation of trust, Zhou recommends prefacing any negative feedback with the assurance that you, as a manager, have the employee’s best interests at heart. Tell them your intent is to help them improve as an employee and then deliver the feedback. Explain how the employee’s actions made you feel (were you anxious, stressed, or disappointed?), and follow up by asking how you can help resolve the issue.

Check out the entire webinar to hear Zhou discuss these topics in more detail. Her philosophy of trust-based management isn’t just helpful for first-time managers — it’s intriguing listening for anyone in a leadership position.